Rotation and activity of a comet

Hi there! We, Earthians, are regularly visited by periodic comets, the most famous one being probably 1P/Halley, which will visit us in 2061. Since we cannot wait, we study others of that kind. Today I tell you about 49P / Arend-Rigaux. This is the opportunity for me to present you The rotation and other properties of Comet 49P/Arend-Rigaux, 1984 – 2012, by Nora Eisner, Matthew M. Knight and David G. Schleicher. This study has recently been published in The Astronomical Journal.

The comet 49P / Arend-Rigaux

The comet 49P / Arend-Rigaux has been discovered in February 1951 at the Royal Observatory of Belgium, by Sylvain Arend and Fernand Rigaux. It is a periodic comet of the Jupiter family, i.e. with a period smaller than 20 years. Its period is actually 6.71 years, its semimajor axis 3.55 AU (astronomical units, 1 AU being 150 millions km, i.e. the Sun-Earth distance), its eccentricity 0.6, and its orbital inclination 19°, with respect to the ecliptic. These numbers are extracted from the JPL Small-Body Database Browser, and are calculated at the date Apr 6, 2010. I have plotted below the distances Sun-comet and Earth-comet.

Distance to the Sun.
Distance to the Sun.
Distance to the Earth.
Distance to the Earth.

The distance to the Sun clearly shows the periodic variations. The orbit of the Earth is at 1 AU, the one of Mars at 1.5 AU, and the one of Jupiter at 5.2 AU. Every 6.71 years, the comet reaches its perihelion, i.e. minimizes its distance to the Sun. This proximity warms the comet and provokes an excess of cometary activity, i.e. sublimation of dirty ice. At these occasions, the distance with the Earth is minimized, but with variations due to the orbital motion of the Earth. We can see for instance that the comet gets pretty close to the Earth in 1951 (when it was discovered), in 1984, and in early 2032. These are favorable moments to observe it. The paper I present you today is mainly (but not only) based on photometric observations made between January and May 2012, at Lowell Observatory.

Observations at Lowell Observatory

Lowell Observatory is located close to Flagstaff, AZ (USA). It was founded by the famous Percival Lowell in 1894, and is the place where Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto, in 1930. Among its facilities is the 4.28 m Discovery Channel Telescope, but most of the data used in this study were acquired with the 1.1 m Hall telescope, which is devoted to the study of comets, asteroids, and Sun-like stars. The authors also used a 79 cm telescope. The observations were made in the R(ed) band.

The data

Besides these 33 observation nights during the first half of 2012, the authors used data acquired close to the 1984 and 2005 perihelion passages, even if the 2005 ones revealed unusable. The observations consists to measure the magnitude (somehow, the luminosity) of the comet, in correcting for atmospheric problems, so as to be able to detect the variations of this magnitude. You can find below an example of data:

Magnitude of 49P / Arend-Rigaux measured in April 2012.
Magnitude of 49P / Arend-Rigaux measured in April 2012.

Of course, the data have holes, since you cannot observe during the day. Moreover, the comet needs to be visible from Arizona, otherwise it was just impossible to observe it and make any measurements.

We can see a kind of periodicity in the magnitude, this is a signature of the rotation of the comet.

Measuring the rotation

Most of the planetary bodies are kinds of triaxial ellipsoids. Imagine we are in the equatorial plane of one of them. We see an alternation of the long and short axes of its equatorial section. If the albedo of the surface element we face depends mainly on its curvature (it depends on it, but mainly may be an overstatement), then we should see two peaks during a period. As a consequence, the period of the lightcurve we observe should be half the rotation period of the comet.

In combining all the measurements, the authors managed to derive a rotation period of 13.45 ± 0.01 hour. For that, they used two different algorithms, which gave very close results, giving the authors confidence in their conclusions. The first one, Phase Dispersion Minimization (PDM), consists to assume a given period, split the measurements into time intervals of this period, and overlap them. The resulting period gives to the best overlap. The other algorithm is named Lomb-Scargle, following its authors. It is a kind of Discrete Fourier Transform, but with the advantage of not requiring uniformly sampled data.

In addition to this rotation period, the authors detected an increasing trend in the 2012 data, as if the spin of the comet accelerated. This is in agreement with an alteration of the measured rotation from the Earth, which moves, and reveals a retrograde rotation, i.e. an obliquity close to 180°. In other words, this is an illusion due to the motion of the observer, but this illusion reveals the obliquity.

Moreover, in comparing the 2012 data with the ones of 1984, the authors managed to detect a variation in the rotation period, not larger than 54 seconds. This is possible regarding the fact that the comet is altered by each perihelion passage, since it outgasses. In this case, that would imply a change of at the most 14 seconds of the rotation period between two passages. Such variations have also been detected for at least 4 other comets (2P/Encke, 9P/Tempel 1, 10P/Tempel 2, and 103P/Hartley 2, see Samarinha and Mueller (2013)).

Comet Period (h) Variation (s)
2P/Encke 11 240
9P/Tempel 1 41 -840
10P/Tempel 2 9 16.2
103P/Hartley 2 18 7200
49P/Arend-Rigaux 13.45 -(>14)

Finally, since the lightcurve is a signature of the shape as well, the authors deduced from the amplitude of variation that the axial ratio of the nucleus, i.e. long axis / short axis, should be between 1.38 and 1.63, while an independent, previous study found 1.6.

Cometary activity

49P / Arend-Rigaux has a low activity. Anyway, the authors detected an event of impulse-type outburst, which lasted less than 2 hours. The analysis of the coma revealed an excess of cyanides with respect to the 1984 passage. Moreover, 49P / Arend-Rigaux is the first comet to show hydroxyde.

The study and its authors

That’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

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